Christmas Reflections
on our Church Culture
and the Benedict Option

pilgrimage
Christmas Eve Nostalgia

At this year’s Christmas Eve children’s Mass eight traditional Christian carols were sung. I found myself singing even though I can’t carry a tune. I was surprised at how I could remember the words which I had first learned 70 years ago. It caused me to reflect on my childhood and what it was like in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

A Different Time

During my elementary and junior high years, I was not churched and went to public school. From 1st grade on we memorized and sang Christian Christmas carols in mandatory music classes. Every year before Christmas break the school would have a Nativity pageant. I even got to play one of the three kings one year. Even though I was not raised in any faith I had an intuitive belief in Jesus and what the Christmas season was all about.

The public school I attended and the town we lived reflected a basic Christian heritage. Each school day started with a prayer and I can remember that everything was closed on Good Friday afternoon and Easter Sunday. You couldn’t travel on those days unless you had a full tank of gas because all the stations were closed. “Blue laws” were the norm in most towns and almost all retail stores were closed on Sundays.

After Mass, I asked my kids if they sang Christian carols during their public high school years (1980’s). They said yes and I recall that one of our parish priests gave the invocation and the baccalaureate speech at their graduations even though it was a public high school.

Our Modern Progressive Times

Since my kids were in public school it has all changed. My grandkids, who also attend a public school, learned traditional Christian carols either through weekly Mass or CCD. Needless to say they do not have a prayer to start their school day. They don’t have a Christmas break but winter or holiday break. There is no Easter break but spring break. I recognize that all this is a natural extension of our culture becoming secular, not based on faith.

The change in public school practices is just one of many examples of how secularism has changed our culture. It seems that Advent and Christmas provide the most direct contrast between the way it was and the way it is today.  The secularization of our culture not only minimizes Christianity but appears to dissolve it.

The Need to Recapture a Christian Community

The various reflections going through my mind made me think of Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, which I recently read. He describes many of the changes occurring in the culture that go against traditional Judeo-Christian faith and moral ethics. He explains how the larger community no longer supports our Christian faith and at times is actively hostile to it. The book offers options for dealing with this environment based on St. Benedict’s rules.  While Dreher has been criticized for advocating a retreat from society, that is not how I interpret his writing

As with any book one can take away any number of different themes. A major one explored is that for many Christians the Church community is nothing but another subculture to belong to for a once a week gathering. Business, school, and various social networks make of the bulk of one’s “communities. The point he brings up is that for Christianity and all it entails to survive we need to “go back” to having a vibrant supportive church community that is the basis for our lives.  We need to recognize that we have to live as a witness to our faith as a minority in a culture where we are no longer a majority.

A Distinctive and Influential Church

Dreher contends that the Church needs to nurture its own life, to “tell its story” by upholding and emphasizing its traditions. Those kinds of actions can set Christians apart at one level, but for good reasons. We need to be differentiated from the larger society if we are to not succumb to the secularism that surround us. Likewise, if Christians are to truly be evangelists, we need to be different in a positive way from the mainline culture to provide a needed contrast to that culture. Dreher suggests “building up” church communities to provide the support not only for faith traditions but also to serve as springboards for outreach and evangelization of the larger society.  Ab analogy is training in preparation for the full baseball season. The early Christians offer the role models for such an effort by building a dynamic church community that provided spiritual and temporal benefits.  This was very appealing to others and the church grew exponentially.

A more personal analogy can highlight what I think Dreher is trying to get across. During my military service I volunteered to be in an elite unit of paratroopers. We underwent more strenuous and intense training than regular soldiers and we were expected to be the first to fight and to take on the most dangerous missions. While part of the Army as a whole, we had different uniform styles and would be immediately recognized as belonging to that airborne unit.  We had instant respect from other soldiers. As a consequence when we were tasked to train other soldiers, they listened to us and readily learned what was taught. In turn, many of the trainees wanted to volunteer for our unit.

Community Discipleship

The term “discipleship” can mean many things. In the context of a Christian community one meaning is being a witness to the faith by providing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy as a community. To be sure, those actions are also to be practiced individually. However, the Church, as a community, is a force multiplier for witnessing to the faith. In turn, it keeps Christian traditions alive to serve as a means for evangelization.

The charge is for us as individuals is to “sign up” for such an effort as participants not spectators. It is a challenge to accept the faith not just as a particular world view but as a way of life.  It is about going back to our faith’s roots’ to reach back to the early Church when the faithful were not known as Christians but as “The Way”. The “way” is the challenge of contributing our time, talent and treasure for the faith. Hopefully, in time, the faith community can become a major sub- culture to offset the larger secular one.

My personal faith journey has been one of progressing from just attending weekly Mass to participating in many Church efforts from Pro Life to Knights of Columbus to being a RCIA catechist and much more.  That involvement with my Church, has enabled  it to become not just the instrument for my faith, but also my social community. It is both a supportive and challenging community to live out the faith. That is how the “Benedict option” plays out for me.

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